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 ALDHA West

Introduction We are Brian and Martina, Martina dries our tent!two Scottish based walkers and climbers and in 1998 we decided to attempt to walk across the United States from the Mexican border to Canada. You can see more of the other outdoor things we get up to on the rest of our website. The route we aimed to follow was the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), which, at 2,600 miles in length, is one of the hardest but also most magnificent long distance walks in the world. Being keen on camping wild, that is carrying a tent or shelter away from the road and preferably high onto mountains, the US long distance trails looked like an exciting adventure and one where we could enjoy an extended six month journey of continuous hiking. There are three main established US long distance trails:

  • Appalachian Trail (AT)- 2,000miles on the east side of the US

  • Continental Divide Trail (CDT)- up to 3,000miles along or near the crest of the US Rockies

  • Pacific Crest Trail (PCT)- 2,600miles along the western mountain ranges

The AT is the most popular and travels through forest for the most part. The CDT is tougher and not entirely complete as a trail with fewer hikers attempting it. The PCT appealed as it meanders through a great variety of landscapes from desert in Southern California, the volcanic chain in the north, the Cascade mountains in Washington and the beautiful Sierra Nevada mountains in California (an area  we had already visited in 1996 on a climbing holiday to Mt Whitney and Yosemite valley). I had a read a book by an English hiker, Chris Townsend in the 1980's, (The Great Backpacking Adventure) which described his journey on the PCT in 1982 as well as other hikes and this more or less set the seed in my mind that I would like to take six months off work and attempt it.

The Trail The Pacific Crest Trail itself is pretty much a continuous path Martina hiking in the South California desertover 2,600 miles long and the construction of the trail is an impressive tribute to the hard work of park services and hundreds of volunteers. Each year repairs are required to the trail as bridges collapse, trees blew over the trail etc. Although the path exists there are many variants and we new that we would have to be flexible in snow covered areas, where the trail wasn't possible due to damage and when we wanted to do more scenic diversions.  You can camp almost all the way along the trail with few restrictions which was a great delight to us.

Our Style Our aim was to stick to the wildest route that we could and to spend the absolute minimum time walking on roads. To do this, we aimed to carry camping equipment and up to 10 days food, water and stove fuel with us. This will give us the freedom to camp where and when we like, vary our itinery and stay as flexible as we can...

Our general pattern was to walk for around 5 days at a time then descend to town and 'rest' for a day. In practise though the rest days were a busy hotch potch of eating, washing, cleaning and repairing with a little sleep thrown in!

When to tackle the trail Because of the great length of the trail, many hikers choose to tackle a section at a time and split the walking into a number of separate holidays. This enables them to choose a suitable season to walk a particular part of the trail. For instance, a desert crossing could be arranged to avoid the summer when the highest temperatures could be expected.

In order to cover the whole 2,600 miles in one continuous journey however, we had to plan carefully to fit our walking into the most suitable seasons. In particular, we wanted to cross the mountain ranges in reasonable conditions avoiding the worst weather and after the winter snow pack had melted. In the highest mountains this restricted us to June to September. The desert areas can be a cauldron of heat in mid-summer and many water sources can dry up. So these are best tackled outside the summer season.

We eventually decided to leave from the Mexican border in late April, planning to walk between 15 to 25 miles per day in order to reach the Canadian border by early October. This meant that we would cross the dry arid regions around the Mojave desert in early May and begin our crossing of the highest region, the Sierra Nevada mountains, in June, hoping that the winter snow pack which had accumulated would have melted sufficiently to enable our crossing. By keeping to our planned daily mileage we would also reach the northern Cascade mountain ranges of Washington by October – hopefully before the winter snow falls start in earnest. At best though, this plan was a compromise and we realised that we would be walking through many regions in less than perfect conditions.  

We decided to allocate a rest day per week into our plans which would allow for much needed rests, washing and dealing with mail etc

 

Planning Resources Fortunately there is a depth of information available about the Pacific Crest Trail which we were able to tap into. The Pacific Crest Trail Association produce guide books containing detailedTypical map from the PCT guide book maps for the whole trail and these were a chief planning resource. They also have a little gem of a book called the PCT Data book which provides information on important features (such as water supplies, road crossings, nearby towns, landscape features) where we could plan out the distance we would have to hike between refreshing our supplies. Once we had a list of preferred resupply stops and the distance between them, then we had a basic structure to our hike. It has to be said though that, partly because of the type of people we are, and partly for flexibility, we did try and build in as many variations as possible and were constantly changing plans as we went along. Sample page from data book with my notesI suppose we would only find out how we would hike over thousands of miles when we started out and hiked!

One other major source of help to us was an internet PCT mailing list where aspirant hikers, seasoned hikers and anyone interested can talk away online. We were able to put questions to the group and to get caught up in the enthusiasm through the previous winter with other hikers preparing for a long hike. It was here that Martina chatted to Greg from near LA who had hiked the trail twenty years ago and, fantastically for us, agreed to help out with our resupply parcels whilst we were on the trail. In defiance of modern technology and equipment he walked the whole PCT in jeans! His generous background work was the key to giving us a chance to succeed.

From the online discussions we thought that there might be around 50 people trying to do a complete thru hike from border to border. That sounds like a lot but given that some might start from Canada and some from Mexico and all might start on different dates we guessed we would probably be hiking alone much of the time.

 

Resupply Tactics The purpose of our resupply was to pick up food and any other items that would allow us to hike to the next resupply. In reality this was mostly food, but also stove fuel, repairs and replacement items. Some towns that we were to encounter would provide all our needs but in some more remote areas we decided to pre pack a box of supplies and mail it to ourselves to be collected when we arrived via 'general delivery'. We also packed maps for each section of the hike and some photographic film to avoid having to carry these items too far. Martina packing our food for Oregon

In addition we gathered some other optional gear in a box and forwarded this on to ourselves to the next resupply- this contained things like spare warm clothes, a music player, novels, other guidebooks, repair items, new socks etc. Before starting the hike we pre packaged supply boxes for the first 4 weeks or so and arranged with Greg for him to send them to our next post office when we were nearing it. After this initial period we adopted a more flexible approach which was just to shop locally for supplies at the time as much as we could. This allowed for our changing dietary requirement through the hike and mostly saved us one big supply packaging job!

 

Gear We were both fairly experienced outdoors people before starting the PCT so had a good idea of what equipment to take and it was mostly well tested. What would be new to us was the huge length of the six month undertaking and the need to travel as light as possible in order to stay fresh enough for the duration. I had read a handbook by Ray Jardine who had some imaginative ideas about lightening the load to carry on a long hike and had proved these worked by completing some ultra long hikes (including the PCT) with his wife in fine style. Ray was known to me as he had also achieved success inventing a new piece of climbing equipment - the camming device or friend- whilst being at the forefront of rock climbing standards in Yosemite National Park.

Our main items were our Terra Nova Voyager tent, down sleeping bags, inflatable thermarest sleeping mats, MSR Whisperlight stove running on Coleman fuel (a cleaner petrol readily available in the US), tried and trusted rucksacks and we intended to try lightweight footwear from hiking boots, running shoes to sandals. Our rucksacks weighed about 10kg loaded with gear but without food- not super light by any means but we were prepared to change the gear we carried and evolve as we hiked.

Read about our journey starting on the Mexican Border in Southern California....

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